The Dark and Deeply Philosophical Poetry of “A Season in Hell with Rimbaud”

In Dustin Pearson’s A Season in Hell with Rimbaud, readers discover a hellscape unlike any other. As the hellscape shifts and morphs between the grotesque and the insane, readers follow a devoted speaker as they navigate violence and turmoil in search of a brother. Strange and nightmare-like, the poems in this collection are sure to leave readers traversing the darkest paths in their own psyches.

“The Day I Told My Brother That Despite It All, I Found A Way to Be Happy” is deeply philosophical, especially as readers contemplate the meaning of happiness fulfillment in a chaotic, violent society. It’s a poem about tempering self-expression for fear of judgment by another. In it, readers encounter a speaker treading lightly, navigating a way they “could be happy without taking away from him.” The speaker exhibits trepidation, “petrified, not knowing / whether he’d embrace me or be jealous.” As the speaker’s hesitation unfolds, so do their philosophical insights, along with illuminations of Hell, where “There’s no need // to bring light to Hell” because “All its monsters / are illuminated by flames and in that way, / everything is open.” At the same time that Hell opens to readers, so does the speaker. Despite not being the first poem in the collection, this poem essentially acts as the collection’s catalyst, because from this poem forward, the images and journey grow only deeper and darker.

“Hell’s Conditions” is a condensed poem, consisting of elongated, enjambed lines. In this poem, Hell is a place where “all bodies are reduced.” The poem relies on Bosch-like images: “Flesh drops / from where it’s been burned, and where it lands, / separates.” Hell is a place where “Bones bleach after the blood makes a vapor / or stain” and “everything regenerates just enough / to perpetuate the pain.” Pearson’s descriptions use minimalist language, and that minimalism makes them even more forceful. Readers are left to create their own sensory experience in the hellscape since the speaker avoids using adjectives to describe the setting. It’s an engaging technique that continues in poems like “Hell Swallowed,” a prose poem gem where “One enters a Hellmouth like a snack but exits like a bullet.” The speaker uses general descriptions like “beautiful, metallic, and oily” rather than more specific ones to allow readers to once more create their own sensory experience. In the Hellmouth, however, the hellscape transforms — “Hell turns to ice” — and becomes a place where “You can walk feeling almost nothing.” Like “The Day I Told My Brother That Despite It All, I Found A Way to Be Happy,” “Hell Swallowed” develops a subtle, yet striking philosophical tone as the speaker observes, “You think about all the invisible / things a body carries inside a mind and you think, if you could just cut / them out, sever them from the body and yourself, there’d be nowhere / left for Hell to find you.” The speaker’s desperate tone perpetuates the poems to follow and adds to the chaos and confusion.

However, A Season in Hell with Rimbaud does offer occasional, brief glimmers of hope. “At Some Point, Light Lets Through” uses a more traditional form structure and shortened lines but maintains the collection’s minimalist language and imagery. In this surreal poem, an environment of watery suspension fills with bodies “floating inevitably upward / and disintegrating.” The speaker attempts to transform the decomposition and hellscape into something positive, noting “So long / as you keep a distance, the acidic / waters make beauty of us.” The speaker uses phrases like “angelic movements” and words like “magical,” which juxtapose the images of Hell in previous poems. The standout in this poem, nonetheless, is the speaker’s observation that “This realm of Hell is one in which / it’s most true what happens / to one happens to everybody.” Here, Hell becomes an undeniable communal experience.

Using minimalism not only in description but also structure, “Murky Water” relies on the power of brevity to capture the speaker’s “rush” they “get / fishing in murky waters.” In lines composed of only two to eight words each, the speaker portrays a mysterious hellscape where “What lives inside them / can’t easily be seen.” The speaker snags bodies on hooks and possibly encounters “a monster the world has / never seen.” It’s a poem of determination. The speaker notes:

I’m the only one
who’s ever come fishing,
and though there are millions
of bodies in Hell’s waters,
and none of them are biting
for not being hungry, I hope
he’ll find me, that he
won’t leave me waiting.

The speaker is determined to find the brother and lives “for the possibility / he’ll be happy to see me.” The speaker has a stark realization — “The waters in Hell are burning, and so too will my brother / when he comes.” Despite the grotesque reality, the speaker moves forward, and their bold determination is enough to will readers onward.

Concluding the collection is “The World at Its Beginning.” The poem opens with the blunt statement, “I suppose every Hell is one / the Earth has already enacted.” Like “Murky Water,” “The World at Its Beginning” relies on brevity to create its form and its verbal power. Embedded in it is a subtle message about humanity’s unchecked destruction:

and that the first
of the world’s green lands
had a wildness of abundance
we humans cut back
over hundreds of years
to make us comfortable,
to give us a culture
we’d come to document
at least as much
as we lived.

The poem transcends into a message about dedication, devotion, and placing another’s needs above one’s own. As the poem moves quickly towards its ending, “origins blur” and the speaker tells themselves “there’s not a world / without my brother in it.” The speaker asserts one of the most significant and telling messages to ever appear in verse:

I tell myself
I’d follow him anywhere
to keep the world
from ending.

A Season in Hell with Rimbaud is not for the faint and fragile. It bears the musicality of Rimbaud’s original works, the dark themes of Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile, and the surrealism of a Husker Du song’s lyrics. For readers more inclined to dark themes and horror genre elements, this collection is a savory addition to their reading lists. For those who long for a return to the poetic greats like Rimbaud and Baudelaire, Dustin Pearson’s work offers a contemporary flair to the Hells of poets before. A Season in Hell with Rimbaud is metaphysical and philosophical in all the right, perfectly discomforting places, and it gives readers the philosophical and intellectual challenge so much of poetry strives to achieve and fails to offer.

A Season in Hell with Rimbaud
By Dustin Pearson
BOA Editions
Published May 10, 2022